The 2018 Fortnightly Serial.
THE SOUTH BEACH evokes thoughts of journeys in two opposite directions. It’s a barren shoreline. There are nothing but stones and sea or sea ice, stretching from Cape Lisburne in the north to Cape Thompson thirty miles away to the south.
To travel this strip is to retrace Ukunniq’s path that led him to the shaman woman he would fight and marry. The journey also led the young initiate through visionary meetings with birds, animals and amuletic objects that he wrested from the spirits that confronted him.
The south was the source: the region from which sea mammals, fish and summer birds migrated. It was also both the symbol and the region of the female. Souls returned there for their reincarnation. The south shore also served as Tikigaq’s main hunting region. To honour the profusion and to harvest it were one thing and not separate.
For more than twenty years, the south beach changed almost entirely when in summer 1887 Peter Bayne, a foot loose hunter from New Brunswick set up a whale hunting station five miles from the village. A cosmopolitan demography of hunters, traders, boat hands, beach combers and southern Inupiat settled here — some for a season, others for a life time, and at its most prosperous the settlement probably consisted of ten or fifteen cabins, storage sheds and temporary Native iglus.
Tikigaq people called the place Jabbertown, most likely for the English, German, Scandinavian, local dialects and island Pidgin spoken here and quarrelled in.
Here Jabbertown hunters killed whales for oil and baleen: the first to sell as lubricant and lighting, baleen or ‘whalebone’ for corset stays, umbrella frames, whips, buttons and other small accessories. Unhindered by taboo or shamanistic sanction, the Jabbertown hunters went straight for the bowhead in small boats from the sea ice with iron harpoon shafts from a Pennsylvania foundry.
Both big-time hunters in pelagic ships and smaller land-based crews like those at Jabbertown had, by 1900, catastrophically reduced the bowhead herd, while at the same time, the kerosene trade was rapidly replacing whale oil as a lighting fluid. With the timely invention of tensile steel, baleen likewise was squeezed out of the corset market. As the bottom dropped out of both these markets, Jabbertown, by 1910, no longer existed.
The southward shamanistic journey was a construct of imagination and only survives in a few obscure stories. Jabbertown has similarly vanished into stories. Albeit they are recent, they’re ancient history.
Now Tikigaq hunters set up hunting camp where Koenig’s cabins stood till 1900. I found a rusted door hinge on the bluffs one evening. Perhaps it had opened one of Koenig’s storerooms.1
Jabbertown and Native Cabins
SIX JABBERTOWN CABINS were dragged by dog team into the village. It’s easy to distinguish them from Tikigaq houses. Like their black tarp cladding, their geometric regularity expresses resolution to withstand the weather. But for all their sturdiness and symmetry, these cabins proclaim transience and intermediate residence.
Native houses were built roughly on the traders’ model. But Tikigaq people, unlike the men who’d come from San Francisco and Seattle, had no access to American suppliers. Once Natives began to abandon their iglus, local architecture was haphazard. And in the absence of timber yard lumber, their houses were irregular, materials inadequate and insulation lacking.2
The peninsula lies above the tree line. And whereas the Kobuk and Noatak valleys are forested with spruce and birch trees, the tallest plants in Tikigaq are marrain grasses. It was partly the flatness of the village that rendered the ‘forest of stakes’ described by Beechey particularly conspicuous. Since Hoare cleared the village of whale jaw bone markers, Tikigaq’s houses became the only elevations on a horizontal landscape.
EVERYTHING IN TIKIGAQ arises and then visibly falls away. Some things lie around to weather. Memory retains a few and memories transform to stories. This general truth is represented by the Point itself, the limits of whose two containing beaches intensify the process and whose own enlargement and decay are visible.
Just as people have inhabited this spot for two millennia, so there are archaic stories. These are brief and often violent fables in which animals confront each another in aimless conflict.
‘ANIMALS POP UP unexpectedly,’ said Kunaηnauraq one day on an empty beach on the way to Cape Lisburne. His surprise was not simple and the obviousness of what he said surprised me.
Kunaηnauraq well understood we’d see caribou and brown bear. An animal’s appearance suddenly is nonetheless exciting. And while the animal may not be anticipated, its littleness framed in enormous landscape has large implications. These join a remote event ‘way out there’, as people say, to life in the village where some of it you eat, other parts you wear. An anonymous creature from out there in the cold is taken into the body and worn against the skin.
Tikigaq’s brief animal stories are relatively uniform and express a cruel wisdom. Whatever its species, all living beings are alone and suffer. Life presents inherent obstacles; there are rival species. Animal protagonists are egotistic, headstrong, quick to quarrel. The stories express no rest or acceptance. Life is short and folly is punished.
INUPIAQ FABLES ARE archaic but not original as to the place. Versions of them are told by hunting societies everywhere and tribal narratives have been converted into texts such as The Fables of Aesop and La Fontaine, the Sanskrit Hitopadesha, the Grimms’ Maerchen…
While the ‘household’ tales of literature sometimes supply a moral, commentarial endings are foreign to the tribal idiom and fables outline things that simply happen. True, there are stories about fools and lazy children, and these have satirical, didactic purpose. But there is no ethic to the animal fables. They’re raw comedies of existence. 3
In Tikigaq, it is tempting to imagine that the fables, like animals that pop up, were themselves ‘in residence’ all along and that they inhabited the earth whether or not people lived in their company. They have a quickness, life force. What appears pointless is, like the animals they describe, a representation of being.
In this sense, the meaning of a bunting story is equivalent to the bird itself. The two have an equivalent life which simply is until the bird ceases to be and the story is over. When there is nothing, there will be another in a series of the same that will be repeated.
TIKIGAQ ELDERS WITH some knowledge of English describe stories like this as ‘ children’s stories’. In one sense this, by a sort of apology, is to demean their importance. In another it is appropriate. The stories have the immediacy and freshness both of children themselves and of the things that children like. In a sense, too, these fables are the children of the early world. They hop round playing with the naivete of first principals.
The fables are often crude, often funny descriptions of an interaction and many have been absorbed into fast moving and virtuosic string games: the ayahagaaq (cat’s cradle) that Daisy is imagined to envision in the projected dream of her version of what a whole and creative life contained.
In ayahagaaq, a circle of sinew or seal line held between the palms is manipulated into semi-abstract versions of activity and transformation. The string moves in coordination with the narrative and when the string collapses, the space between the hands returns to emptiness.4
Just as there is nothing once the pattern in the string goes slack, so when an animal has disappeared, the landscape returns to its former quiescence. The stories have a restless, sometimes convulsive movement. Their often simple-minded climax is soon achieved and this gives the appearance of it all having been pointless.
THIS ABSENCE OF purpose is matched by the emptiness in which fables are enacted. Each brief percussive drama takes place in a void which, with the effort to express existence, it is their function to animate. And this contributes to a sense that they take place at the beginning of time and that life is experimental.
This is ‘Trickster’s Landscape’: a characterless but hypothetically charged void in which the painful or deceiving action of an animal, a demiurge, a spirit, generates the presence of life as it will become known to human observation. Death, humiliation, eating, copulation are all equally experienced with the same negligence of affect.
Inupiat admire animals for their completeness. Every individual achieves perfect, prototypical form. But there is not much to do except exist. It is absurd but also in the nature of things. The Trickster deities of the origin myths, in their vague, heroic outline, are magnifications of the mischievous cartoon-like animals of the fables. And these shamans of origination achieve creational success through the same brutal, egotistic means as the minor species that quarrel for the mere reason of an other’s existence. In this landscape, life simply happens, and when it happens, it clashes with coincident phenomena: on the world’s uncertain surface wherever residence can be achieved with the short-lived security of species existence.
Five Tikigaq Fables
HERE’S A SEAGULL with a song. It tied a stone round its neck and flew across a river. When it got across, it said ‘They sometimes have games. But I’m no good at anything. When they start to play, I won’t have a game to challenge them with.’
So it thought to itself: ‘Next time I cross the river I’ll take a larger stone to carry.’ When it reached the other side it found a larger stone and hung it round its neck. Then it started to cross. Where is the song?
Aa aliqaa, yaa aliqaa
Aa aliqaa, yaa aliqaa
It went across again and looked for a larger stone. Then it sang the same song. Just when it was half way across the river the gull fell in. It landed in the water. And it shouted: ‘There are qayaqs coming! And two skinboats. They’re coming to help me!’
But it was its own feet it thought were qayaqs. And its own wings he thought were skinboats. That’s how it died. That’s the end of the story.
Told by Asatchaq.
Running round and round
Round in a circle
Fell through the skylight
And started crying:
My ribs! My ribs!
I think I’ve broken them!
Told by Umigluk
THERE WAS A lemming which spent the mornings when the sun came up outside a brown bear’s den. One morning as it combed its hair, the brown bear came out and found the lemming. ‘Watch out,’ said the bear, ‘I’m coming to get you.’
‘Go ahead,’ replied the lemming. ‘Get me.’ And it shouted, ‘Come out all you lemmings!’ And the lemmings all came.
They were next to a river where the ice was forming. And the lemmings chased the bear towards the river. The bear tried to run across. But the ice was too thin and it fell into the water. ‘Come and help me,’ shouted the brown bear. But the lemming just laughed and the brown bear stopped struggling. When it was dead, the lemming was happy. ‘Now I have a year’s food supply!’
Told by Qimiuraq
Raven and Loon Story
Taimmani, back then when animals were people
Raven and Loon were partners
And agreed to tattoo each other.
‘Me first,’ said Raven.
He was white at the beginning.
So Raven took lamp soot
And drew fire sparks
On his partner’s feathers.
That was how Loon
Got the pattern on his feathers.
But Raven tired of painting
and grabbed some soot and ashes
and tossed then over Loon’s back.
That’s why it’s grey now
Loon was angry
He scooped soot form the pot
And threw it over Raven.
Raven had been white.
But now he’s black.
And stayed that way.
Told throughout the Inuit Arctic
What a fool to lament that wretched little husband
with his spears of grass! I’ll be your husband!
The Bunting replied:
Marry an owl? With those coarse feathers,
fat beak, thick legs and forehead, no neck!
The owl stabbed at the bunting and when she cried, he taunted her:
That’s women for you! Sharp-tongued all right,
but one little poke will start them whimpering!
And off they flew in their separate directions.
Told by Qimmiuraq
Pendant – August 1973
ANOTHER BEACH. The weighted net’s pegged into shingle and extends through the water where a float holds it vertical. Every few hours we haul the net in, sometimes full of jellyfish, sometimes loaded with Arctic Char. I play cards with some men in their twenties and thirties.
‘They want to know why you come round here,’ says Samaruna suddenly.
‘What brings you round here, white man?’ echoes one of the players. Everyone laughs.
‘Looking for a party?’
‘Maybe you’ve brought qaaq?’
‘What’s qaaq?’ I ask.
‘Yah. That’s what we call badweed. We call that qaaq because it makes your mind explode’
‘No qaaq, sorry…’
Another voice, more challenging:
‘You CIA or FBI?’ A painful silence.
‘I don’t think they’d employ me, I’m English, not a Yankee…’
The oldest of the men addresses me in Inupiaq. Everyone chokes. I’m confused and frightened. Nervously infected by their laughter I emit a strangulated giggle. Someone comes to my rescue.
‘His name’s Q. He wants to know if you brought your girl-friend with you, because if you have, he wants an introduction. Right now!’
‘Sorry, I didn’t bring her this time. In fact I only came out here to look for girls. I’m still looking unfortunately.’
‘Aym-still-looking-unfortunately!’ declaims a man in educated Cambridge.
The men lie down laughing. ‘My ribs!’ someone chokes, ‘My ribs-they-gonna-bust-all-right! The wind picks up and the dingy lurches. They jump into action and drag the boat higher.
‘OK, stop that!’ shouts the man called Aviq.
Then, Can you stop it white man? A man called Suluk, with a face fresh cast from bronze, explains.
‘We want you to stop that wind from blowing.’
The older man, Q: ‘Tell it blow round the other way. Or maybe stop it blowing for ever! If you don’t have qaaq, we want to see your white man’s aηatkuq power!’
TULUGAQ CAME IN this morning with a pot of sea slugs. He sits eating them raw and says, ‘You’re a poet aren’t you?’
‘I try now and then.’
‘How many you got?’
‘How many poems you got? (chewing).
‘You mean how many have I written?’
‘I haven’t counted them.’
‘We don’t do that at Cambridge,’ he says satirically between mouthfuls of sea slug.
‘Well, here’s another I made about you:
‘Tom Lowenstein come to Tikigaq.
Goes down on the beach.
Looks up at the sky.
Sees a sea gull.
Sea gull shits in his eye.’
Later in the store, an old man approaches me and stands with his face half an inch away from mine.
‘You the white man?’ he asks softly.
The question, earnest, semi-hostile pushes coldly on my face. ‘Because if you are,’ his voice descends to whisper, ‘maybe I can help clean that bird shit off out of your eye.’
Suddenly the man’s face opens and light pours out from it. Both of us explode with laughter. Invisibly, beyond the store shelves, anonymous voices, chiming in canon, quote Tulugaq’s poem. It has become folklore.
Tom Lowenstein was born near London in 1941 and educated at Cambridge. He has worked since the mid-1960s as a teacher. Between 1973 and 1989 he recorded materials deriving from intermittent residence in an Inupiaq (north Alaskan Eskimo) village. Previous publications include three books of poetry: Filibustering in Samsara (The Many Press), Ancestors and Species: New and Selected Ethnographic Poetry (Shearsman Books), and Conversation with Murasaki (Shearsman Books). His three studies of Point Hope are The Things that Were Said of Them (University of California Press 1990), Ancient Land: Sacred Whale (Bloomsbury, Farrar Strauss and Harvill, 1993-2001) and Ultimate Americans: Point Hope, Alaska 1826-1909 (University of Alaska Press, 2009).
- See my Ultimate Americans, chapters 6 and 7 for a detailed account of Jabbertown.
- Once driftwood supplies on the south shore were depleted by whaling steamers in the early 1900s, Tikigaq people in American-style cabins with wood-burning stoves became dependent on stove oil. This continues to be catastrophically expensive.
- One episode in Ukunniq’s story has the shaman Ukunniq hammer at a tree trunk on the beach at Cape Thompson. Spirits have set up a challenge for Ukunniq and the trunk, which he is told to split with a whale bone wedge, is a trap which is intended to kill him. Because Ukunniq has rendered the wedge harmless by touching it to his anus, the wedge flies up and misses him. The formula is repeated and modified by the ‘Tree Trunk Splitting Monkey’ in the Sanskrit Hitopadesha. This later text has the two halves of the trunk smack together on the monkey’s testicles. The moral (!) being that people shouldn’t interfere with others’ business.
- Daisy’s imagined vision derives from the experience of ayahagaaq as a creative and aesthetic component of children’s play and as a happy, non-competitive activity involving all the generations.